CA aims to boost nonbinary, queer women construction workers

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday October 11, 2022
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Mission Rock Academy graduate, Anna Fung, left, spoke at a press event announcing new state investment to increase access and equity in construction careers at a Mission Rock construction site on Tuesday, October 11. Photo: Christopher Robledo
Mission Rock Academy graduate, Anna Fung, left, spoke at a press event announcing new state investment to increase access and equity in construction careers at a Mission Rock construction site on Tuesday, October 11. Photo: Christopher Robledo

A new California grant program aims to boost the number of nonbinary, queer women, and other underrepresented groups, entering the construction trades. The $30 million investment over two years is the largest of its kind, according to state officials.

It is known as the Equal Representation in Construction Apprenticeship, or ERiCA for short, and $25 million of the initial investment from the state is earmarked for covering participants' child care costs and marketing campaigns about the grant program. The other $5 million is covering the cost of state agencies to oversee the initiative, which state lawmakers have pledged to annually support with $15 million budget allocations.

"In California, women and nonbinary individuals make up only 3.5% of active apprentices in the building and construction trades," said California Labor Secretary Natalie Palugyai. "When we stop to think about why, it's in large part because construction is widely viewed as a man's job. We want to change that. By providing child care supportive services and expanding our outreach to new and underserved populations, we will support access and equity in the construction industry, while also helping to meet its urgent need for skilled workers."

Palugyai joined other state and local female labor officials in San Francisco Tuesday to officially announce the launch of ERiCA. They gathered in front of the bayside Mission Rock construction site along the city's eastern shore where the Giants baseball team is turning a flat parking lot into a mixed-used development with new housing, businesses, and public parks.

"The money from this grant will help remove obstacles to entering this industry," said Katie S. Hagen, director of the state's Department of Industrial Relations. "When we spoke with women in construction, they told us child care costs were one of the biggest barriers to working in the trade. We want to encourage organizations to utilize this funding to remove barriers, support parents and get creative in reaching out to these historically underserved groups in the construction trades."

State lawmakers awarded $15 million toward the program in the last two budget years, which begin on July 1. It took a year for the state agencies to figure out the specifics of it, which were informed by conversations they had with people in the field.

Over and over again they heard that child care costs are a major barrier for women and nonbinary folks to enroll in construction sector apprenticeships. They currently account for just 4% percent of active apprentices.

According to an interactive data map maintained by the state's Department of Industrial Relations, there are currently 54 nonbinary participants of such programs for a number of different careers.

None are living in San Francisco, while Santa Clara County, at eight people, has the most nonbinary participants in such programs of any Bay Area county. But few are in construction. Across the state there are three each in the laborers and plumbing industries, and two in electrical.

Female participants numbered 7,542 throughout the state, while male participants totaled 82,480. The state agency does not track participants by their sexual orientation or if they are transgender.

‚Äč‚ÄčAnna Fung, 40, a queer San Francisco native and resident, is hoping to take advantage of the new grant program when she and her wife, Julie Wong, who works for the city's public health department, send their daughter Madi, now 4 months old, to infant care several days a week next year. While the couple can rely on their relatives for now with babysitting Madi, they know the arrangement is only temporary, said Fung.

"It will give us peace of mind to keep our daughter safe and happy," said Fung of receiving child care support via the grant program.

Formerly a nanny, Fung pivoted to the construction trades when the COVID pandemic hit and was accepted into a program the Giants had launched to attract more women to the field. One of 16 women in the five-week training academy, Fung worked on the Mission Rock construction site and entered into a two-year apprenticeship program last fall.

She aims to become a journeyman general laborer and has been working on the mixed-use development being built at the Balboa Bart station by Cahill where she helps keep the site clean and the hardware organized. Fung told the B.A.R. she hopes the new ERiCA initiative will allow for other LGBTQ community members to pursue careers in the construction trades.

"I think, especially in San Francisco, it makes sense to have more people who represent this community to build this community," said Fung, who hasn't met many other LGBTQ people working in the field.

Iowayna Peña, a real estate project director for the San Francisco Giants' Mission Rock mixed-use redevelopment, simply said "finally" when asked by the B.A.R. her reaction to the new grant program. Child care was an issue for many of the women in the Giants' program, noted Peña, so they assisted them in accessing services so their children were cared for while they took part in the training.

Peña, who lives with her wife in Oakland, said more needs to be done to ensure her industry reflects the diversity of Californians. The training program offered by the team was the first to be all women in the city, she noted.

"If we are talking about building an equitable future, we can't do that without building a diverse workforce," she said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 7.7 million people employed in construction and extraction occupations as of September. Women accounted for 1,084,000 of those working in the sector, or 14% of the total workforce.

"It is still unusual to see a woman doing this," noted Erica Anenberg, a lesbian who founded the Southern California construction and remodeling company Girl Flip, in the Bay Area Reporter's monthly Business Briefing column in April.

Based on economic data for the San Francisco area released October 3, the construction sector is a growing field. It added 5,700 employees between August of 2021 and this year, an increase of 4.6%.

"Backlog remains stable, and many contractors expect rising sales, employment, and profit margins over the next six months. Many contractors also continue to report operating at capacity. Their primary issue is not insufficient demand for construction services, but rather a lack of access to skilled craft professionals," stated Anirban Basu, chief economist for the industry group Associated Builders and Contractors, last week in response to the latest national employment numbers for the sector.

Adele Burnes, deputy chief of the Division of Apprenticeship Standards at the state's Department of Industrial Relations, told the B.A.R. that the October event was to mark the official launch of the solicitation for proposals for the ERiCA grants. The funds are to be used for two categories and, in addition to women and nonbinary individuals, are to support at-risk youth, people with disabilities, veterans, and people of color.

One use is to provide supportive resources for child care so that parents, including single dads, can apply for pre-apprenticeship or apprenticeship programs in the construction trades. Agencies and nonprofits that apply for the grant program will be able to provide $5,000 per pre-apprentice for supportive services specifically for child care, said Burnes.

For those who are apprentices, the amount will be $10,000 per year to help cover their child care costs. There will be a total grant amount cap of $3 million per agency seeking funds under the child care category.

"We are trying to be flexible for how the money can be spent, so it could be a stipend that goes directly to the parents or toward an in-house daycare at a training center," said Burnes. "It could also be used for paying for a child care coordinator within a program to help participants with children find childcare."

Proposals will also be entertained from agencies and nonprofits that want to do outreach and community building aimed at increasing the number of women, nonbinary individuals, and people from other underrepresented groups in the building trades. The cap for those grants per agency will be $2 million.

Agencies wanting to offer child care assistance and engage in marketing efforts will have a grant cap of $4 million. The deadline to apply is January 12.

"We are letting people come to us with their proposals," said Burnes.

The state agency is aiming to announce the grant recipients by February 24, though it could get pushed back into early March. The money should be awarded on April 1, with the funding to be utilized no later than June 30, 2025.

At the one-year mark of the two-year grant cycle, the state agency is planning to release a preliminary report on ERiCA. At the kickoff event, Palugyai noted one benefit for women, nonbinary individuals, and others pursuing construction careers is such jobs come with "excellent pay and benefits without the requirement of a traditional college degree."

More information about apprenticeship programs in California can be found here.

Updated, 10/11/22: This article has been updated with comments from those at the news conference.

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